A Chance to Sit at the Cool Kids' Table
© The Rev. C. Joshua Villines
St. John's Lutheran Church, Atlanta, Georgia
December 28, 2008
I’ve gone nearly twenty years without really thinking about high school. At least, that was true until a few people who knew me back then found me on Facebook. It turns out, their memories of that time are sufficiently occluded by time or wishful thinking that they’ve forgotten something that I have not, and which I will now confess to you. Please do me the courtesy of acting surprised. I was a nerd in high school.
If there was ever any question about that, it was resolved every day during that great sorting of the high school castes: lunchtime. I did not sit at the cool table. I did not sit at the potentially cool table. Nor was I welcome at the Goth, punk, or stoner tables. On any given day, I was at the very lowest rung on the social ladder – the nerd table.
I won’t ask any of you to confess where you sat, but I suspect all of us – even those of you who sat at with the coolest of the cool – can remember a time when there was a table where we hoped we would be welcome, but we weren’t. The opportunities for exclusion certainly don’t stop with high school. They become slightly more subtle, but in many ways the barriers between people become higher and more pronounced.
Often those barriers are financial – people set themselves apart by the cars they drive, the neighborhoods where they live, or the places where they take vacations. But “haves and have-nots” aren’t just separated by money. Sometimes we find ourselves on the outside looking at the lives of people with happy families or healthy bodies or safety and security.
Every one of us, at some time in our lives, has found ourselves staring at a literal or metaphorical cool table – wishing that we were welcome, hoping that we would be included, and certain that it wasn’t going to happen.
In today’s epistle lection, the Apostle Paul describes that as the human condition. The image he uses is one of a child whose parents have died and who have left her inheritance in the hands of a guardian. As Paul tells it, the child is no better than a servant in her guardian’s household, always hoping for what they cannot have. She sees the world that she wishes she could live in, the one she feels born to, but she cannot reach it no matter how hard she tries.
Since this is the Apostle Paul speaking, we know he’s not just talking about unfulfilled dreams and status anxiety, he’s talking about a deeper theological reality as well. Part of the human condition is reaching toward God, seeking a kind of completion and wholeness that always seems outside our grasp. Prayer, worship, discipline – all of these are ways we try to connect to move beyond our world to the deeper reality of God.
Unfortunately, you just can’t get there from here. The holiness and perfection of God is as far beyond us as the cool kids’ table was for most of us when we were in high school.
Which is why we read this particular text on the First Sunday of the Christmas season. The miracle of Christmas is no less amazing than if the coolest kid in school had walked across the lunchroom and sat down with the nerds and the outcasts. For the record, I don’t remember that ever happening; but we use this season to remember that two thousand years ago Almighty God stepped out of the perfection of Heaven to enter fully into our lives as a fellow human being. We couldn’t get to the cool table, so God brought the cool table to us.
Paul says, “When the fullness of time had come we were sent God’s only son, born of a woman, born under the law.”
The answer to the human condition, the solution to our striving and hoping and dreaming, to our reaching and doubting and failing, the solution is not magically fixing everything for us – the solution is a tiny baby. Not a magical baby or a super-baby, a regular, human, crying baby who entered the world just like we did. All of the power and perfection of God, transformed into a tiny person who was as vulnerable to the world as we are.
Here the Apostle Paul contradicts a treasured Christmas hymn, and as a parent, I’m inclined to agree with the Apostle Paul. Has anyone else ever noticed this line in “Away in a Manger?” It goes like this: “The cattle are lowing, the poor baby wakes, but little Lord Jesus no crying he makes.” I have to admit, every time I hear that lyric I think, “yeah right.” If a cow comes and moos in a baby’s ear, the baby is going to cry.
And that’s the whole point of Christmas. God did not come as a cherubic and impossible infant who was undisturbed by the world around him. God entered into our messy and chaotic lives as a fellow struggler. From that first startling burst of cold air on Christmas Day to the thorns and nails of Good Friday, Jesus came into our lives to know exactly what it means to be human.
And in so doing, what did God accomplish? Why go to all that trouble? Paul has an answer for that too. In verse five he writes that God went through all of this “so that we might receive adoption as children.” The arrival of Jesus is, first and foremost, not about sin and conviction, it’s not even about justice and hope, it’s about love and adoption. It’s about a table even more important than the coolest one in the school lunchroom – it’s about God’s family supper table.
God, seated at the head of that table, didn’t want to eat alone…so God came to us to draw each of us into one family. The message of Christmas is that you and I are loved and wanted. The message of Christmas is that God considered no price too high to pay to reach out to us, to draw us in, and to let us know that we are loved.
Paul goes on to say that, as a result, the Spirit of God lives within us and allows us to call on God as our Father. I’ve always found that a comforting image, but not all of us were fortunate enough to grow up with a kind and loving father…so please don’t let that image keep you from hearing the message of Christmas. Whatever your image of a compassionate, supportive, generous parent is – that is how God wants to be known by you. Whether you call God “Father” or “Mother,” “Grandma or Grandpa,” “Aunt or Uncle,” – it does not matter what image you use.
The image you choose isn’t important, and it doesn’t matter if you’ve never had anyone in your life to provide that kind of love – at Christmas we remember that, in the most dramatic way, God reaches out to each one of us to adopt us as children and offer us a place at the family table.
That is a particularly generous Christmas gift in a season where everyone is thinking about, talking about, or spending time with family. Some of us find at this time of year that, even among our families – or especially among them – we are most alone because we cannot be ourselves. Others of us are separated from our families by distance, by unresolved conflicts, or by death and loss. Then there are those of us who use this season to remind ourselves why we don’t spend more time with certain family members during the rest of the year.
For a season that is so very much about family, this time of year is often a reminder for many of the fragility or pain their own families hold. Paul reminds us, however, that the heart of this season is our adoption into God’s family – a place where we are loved and welcomed exactly as we are. There’s no guarantee that God’s family will be any less crazy or eccentric than our biological one – odds are it’s more so, in fact. Nevertheless, in a time where family ties can be strained or lacking – every one of us is offered a secure place in the family of God.
Paul continues by making it clear just how much our status changes with the arrival of Jesus. “So you are no longer a slave,” he writes, “but a child.” If we go back and look at the whole of the fourth chapter of Galatians, it’s clear that Paul is specifically talking about being enslaved to the “elemental spirits” of the world. At the time of Paul’s writing, it was not uncommon to believe that various spirits and forces directly controlled people’s lives, taking away their free will.
My first thought when I read that was to skip over it for the purpose of today’s sermon. After all, as modern, post-Enlightenment people we aren’t exactly inclined to believe in wandering spirits taking over our minds and our bodies. Then again, maybe that’s not as farfetched as it seems.
Whether or not we believe in “elemental spirits,” how much control do most of us really feel like we have over our daily lives? How much time do we really consider to be our own? How often do we get to do the things that really matter to us?
I read one commentator who said that this part of the text would make the most sense to someone who struggled with addiction. I think it’s more accurate to say that those of us who wrestle with addiction have to be the most honest about this reality; but I think any of us can understand it.
Some of us are enslaved by the fear of poverty – real or imagined. We slog in day after day to jobs that dominate our time without nourishing our souls. Others of us are enslaved by our bodies, limited by fragile health or the changes of age. Some of us are enslaved by the choices we have made, limiting our options or forcing us into commitments that take up every moment of our time. And, even if none of those apply, there are still others of us for whom the minutiae of the day – laundry and dishes, yardwork and oil changes – leave us with no time for ourselves.
The demands of our jobs and our bodies, the obligations of our daily responsibilities, rule us as fiercely as any evil spirit might.
Christmas reminds us that those forces are not the final word on our lives. Almighty God has faced them all, starting out with wet diapers and cutting new teeth and moving all the way to murder and betrayal at the hands of friends. No matter what enslaves you, no matter what limits you and holds you back, Almighty God has faced it and defeated it.
And God does not face those forces as some distant and disdainful deity, God faces it as one of us – because that’s what it means to be a family. Whatever our disappointments with our own family, whatever the ways we have disappointed our own families, God has permanently and completely adopted us as children. As easily as Mary drew her newborn son into her arms, God draws us in, holds us close, and refuses to let us go.
For me, I think that is the most powerful meaning of the image of Madonna and Child that is so prevalent during this season. It isn’t simply the image of God as a cherubic child, it is the reminder that in this season God gathers us all in as children. Christmas is not just the season of the incarnate child, it is the season of the parent who adopts us and loves us unceasingly.
And so, as Advent called us to look toward the future, Christmas anchors us firmly in the present. For right now, in this very moment and for all times to come, we are welcomed – just as we are – into the family of God. Right now we are invited to leave behind all of the cliques and exclusions that kept us out or held us back. Right now we are freed from all of the powers and obligations that held our hopes and our dreams captive.
We enter into the New Year with a reminder that our family is larger, stronger, and more expansive than we could ever imagine. As we learn to embrace our own welcome, the challenge for us is to learn how to live like a family. How do we respond faithfully to a God who is willing to demonstrate such extravagant love for us? How do we treat others knowing that they are not just our neighbors, they are our brothers and sisters?
After all, we have our own “cool kids’ table” right here; one where every week we are fed by God’s tangible presence. How do we make sure that everyone who wants to come and sit here with us is fed? God’s answer to that question was not to wait for us, but instead to come and meet us in person. As we venture out into this new year, may we carry that Christmas miracle with us – meeting all of the members of our large, extended family where they are, and bringing ourselves fully into their lives as their brothers and sisters.